Friday, December 13, 2013

Favorite Reads, 2013 Edition

I read fifty-six books in 2013, a good number for me and really, sort of hard to believe because it certainly doesn’t feel like I average a book a week. For sure, lots of these were read in batches, during a vacation or at times when I was avoiding writing. In 2013, I made a concerted effort to read more short story collections, a decision which is happily reflected in my year-end list with the inclusion of not one or two but three collections. What constitutes a favorite? That’s simple: a book that amazes and stays with me. The easy choices were the ones that immediately came to mind. Some I had forgotten a little but they flooded back, full of detail and feeling. As always, this list includes MY favorite reads of 2013 and not only books published within the calendar year. I’ve included the publication year, in case that’s of interest. And so, without further ado, the best 12 things I read this year, in no particular order:

Benediction by Kent Haruf (2013)
If you read several reviews by people who love Haruf’s writing, you may notice a repeating element: we fans are fervent as cult-members, not always sure how he accomplishes his effects or retains his quiet power over us. Benediction is the last in Haruf’s Holt, Colorado, trilogy and although it can be read alone, I’d strongly advise that you eventually get around to the first two: Plainsong and Eventide. This story centers around a elderly denizen as he lives his final months. Memories flood back; family and friends gather. What can I say? Haruf is one of my favorite writers and you just have to read this book. I wrote more about it here.

Erasure by Percival Everett (2001)
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is a critically celebrated author having a hard time selling his latest manuscript. His family is fractured, by his father’s suicide several years back and his mother’s failing health, and by his own inability to face things. Frustrated by the success of a novel he considers offensive drivel, he updates his own manuscript to surprising effect. Erasure is a sharp satire and yet, touching and deeply moving. It’s about family and race and much, much more, and it’s one of the more unique things I read this year.

John Adams by David McCullough (2001)
This book took up a substantial chunk of my summer because after I read its 600+ pages, Jason and I watched the HBO miniseries (which was very good). The breadth and depth of this book are impressive and yet, McCullough writes in an engaging and insightful way. It reminded me of my love for history books, especially those that delve into the social, cultural, and personal. (Following this read with McCullough’s 1776 reminded me that I do not enjoy as much those focusing on military/war.) John Adams is an amazing accomplishment that will enrich your understanding of America’s beginnings and help you to personify those wacky founding fathers.

Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (1969)
This is the story of Mr. Bridge, a family man, a businessman, a father. He lives a typical mid-twentieth-century American existence. The novel tells the story of his life in impressionistic vignettes. These glimpses of Mr. Bridge build and build, revealing secrets and fleshing him out until we have, at the end, a fuller picture of his character. I loved this book. I compared the style to the paintings of Chuck Close (read more here) but you can also think of those photos that are broken down into pixels, and every pixel is actually another photograph, when you look close. I was riveted by this book and I also read its companion, Mrs. Bridge, but thought this one much better. And if you’re interested, there was a movie made, a dubious attempt that fell short but was noteworthy for the incredible performance by Joanne Woodward.

This Close by Jessica Francis Kane (2013)

A superb story collection with the connecting theme of human estrangement. We can all get “this close” to understanding each other, but probably not more. I loved the mood of these stories, I loved their interconnecting elements, I loved the characters. I blabbed on and on about it here.


The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (2008)
I’ve had this book on my shelf for a long time. I knew that lots and lots of people loved it but I’d usually be put off by its length. I’m so glad I picked it up this year. The novel does what the title says, it tells about the life of Edgar Sawtelle, a mute born to dog-breeders in rural Wisconsin. You don’t have to be a dog person, I wouldn’t think, to appreciate the descriptions of the family’s life with these animals, any more than you have to be a Shakespeare buff to appreciate the allusions to Hamlet. Hamlet, you say? Dogs? Trust me, this is a fabulous read. And Oprah and Tom Hanks are working on a film version, so get your copy before you have to get one with a movie tie-in cover.
Assorted Fire Events by David Means (2000)
A bracing, powerful collection of stories. Means examines the less-than-pleasant aspects of the human condition with an unflinching gaze and yet, a poetic soul. Full of masterful writing and images I couldn’t release. Perhaps a less optimistic viewpoint than what I’m usually drawn to and yet, this is partly why I was so impressed by its effect on me. I explain in more detail here.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013)

You know, I had just read Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall when I picked this up. Both books deal with educated East-coasters involved in art. Really. They both do. So when I realized that Messud’s main character was a schoolteacher but also the frustrated artist of dioramas, and that for much of the novel, she’d be waxing on about art and her experiences in a shared studio with an artist who was building a life-size, modern-day Wonderland installation…well, I thought maybe I’d better pick it up some other time. But despite the high-minded musings, The Woman Upstairs snuck up on me. It’s sly and evocative, with building suspense and much to sink your teeth into. While reading it, I thought a lot about the film Notes from a Scandal; this, too, is the story of delusion and unnatural attachment. It will make you think about many things, including art and its many manifestations, and it will surprise and confound you.
Ramadan Sky by Nichola Hunter (2013)

Vic is a young woman who has just arrived in Jakarta to teach English. It’s the type of job perhaps normally undertaken by slightly younger adventurers; we know from the start that Vic is atypical in this and other ways. She’s an outsider. She is outspoken and decisive and although surprised by the mores of her new surroundings, she doesn't become flustered or defeated. She meets Fajar, a local young man who floats from job to job with little thought beyond the day-to-day. The resulting relationship is the glue of this novella, a romantic entanglement unlike any I’ve read before, full of surprises and humanity. The story is told from both point of views and also that of Fajar’s on-again-off-again fiancée. A unique, poetically-written story that is about culture and expectation as much as it is about personal responsibility and connection. The characters have stayed with me and I find myself wanting to read it again.

The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Joseph Manu (2013)
Thoma lives with his mother and father in Madras amongst Catholics, evangelicals and Hindus. Three years before, his charismatic brother, a cartoonist, committed suicide, an event that his father can’t move beyond. Thoma’s mother despises her husband, often to comedic effect, and Thoma is afraid, confused, and directionless. This novel was funny and read at times like a mystery, as the truth of the brother’s suicide is fleshed out through the comics he left behind, his relationships, and Thoma’s own recollections. Overriding everything is the thought that the actual truth may be nothing more than a story everyone’s agreed upon, and that the same could be said about actual happiness. A wonderful read.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
Believe it or not, this was the first novel I’ve ever read by Michael Chabon, and if it hadn’t been recommended by a friend, I may never have picked it up. It’s the story of two Jewish cousins who immigrate into the US before World War II and become important figures in the Golden Age of the comics industry (think early superheroes, stuff like that). Nothing about that would have appealed to me, probably, and yet there is nothing this book doesn’t do. As I writer, I was overwhelmed and maybe a bit depressed while reading because THERE IS NOTHING THIS BOOK DOESN’T DO. Think of something you like about a book, any book. Memorable characters? Great story? Historical interest? Layers and layers of meaning? I’m telling you, THERE IS NOTHING THIS BOOK DOESN’T DO. It is fabulous. I went back to read Chabon’s first novel to assure myself that he wasn’t always, in fact, a superhero himself. He wasn’t. Although even at the beginning, he was very, very good.

This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila (2013)

This story collection is set in Hawaii and it offers up a local’s perceptions of the sights, sounds and culture. Kahakauwila offers us a rare view into the juxtaposition of native traditions and modern, mainland life, and how this conflict manifests in both individual families and society at large. Her characters are unpolished and true and I loved the fresh and unusual situations she placed them in. A beautifully written exploration of human relationships amidst a setting that might not be the paradise it seems from outside.


  1. Totally in awe of the amount of books you manage to read. A little overwhelming. I work as a psychotherapist, so I read through a lot of professional literature, and I'm writing my second novel. Wished I was a fast reader, but among my discoveries this year were writers like Marlen Haushofer - Himmel, der nirgendwo endet - and - Die Wand - which I read both in German and English. And recently, thanks to Scott from HC, the novels of Kent Haruf, which I see you're a fan of. Just delving into Plainsong and am intrigued enough to continue with Eventide and Benediction. He conveys intimacy through his marvellous capacity to step into characters.

  2. Well, it's probably more than I usually manage, which is why I mention it. Lucky for me, I have no day job although I don't usually read much during those hours. Probably just a lot of avoiding things I should be doing! Yes, Haruf is fab. Hope you enjoy his other novels and happy holidays to you! X

  3. Thanks, Mary. A happy Christmas time to you and yours x

  4. Well done with your reading list. I'm nearly at the fifty mark.

    Have you read American Desert by Everett? Excellent book, as are his short stories.

    Happy xmas.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka